School Climate & Safety

In School Shootings, ‘He Just Snapped’ Is a Myth, Psychologist Says

By Evie Blad — August 08, 2014 3 min read
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It’s become a cliché after school shootings: As the public searches for an explanation for the attack, news outlets quote family members or witnesses who say the shooter “just snapped.”

But “he just snapped” is a myth, Anders Goranson, a psychologist and threat-assessment specialist, said in a lecture here at annual meeting of the American Psychological Association Thursday. The path to a violent mass attack often starts with a relatable frustration that grows through cultivation and study by the attacker, he said. And attackers usually experience “leakage” before they act, giving indications that they are planning to do something, he said.

“I think this idea of ‘just snapped’ really undermines the importance of ongoing risk management and assessment,” Goranson said.

People need to feel empowered to share information or conversations that “made the hair stand up on the back of their neck,” he said. “If we believe this comes out of nowhere, then why do any of these things?”

That’s not to cast blame or to suggest that high-profile incidents of violence could have been predicted and stopped, Goranson said, but “it doesn’t go from zero to 60 with no other steps.”

Anonymous Reporting

That idea of “leakage” has motivated many states and school systems to create advanced anonymous reporting systems that allow youth to report suspicious behavior by their peers. The operators of a tipline in Colorado, which was started after the school shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, believe that system has helped dismantle the plans of multiple would-be school shooters.

In a report completed by the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center in 2002, the agency analyzed 37 school attacks that occurred between 1974 and 2000. It concluded that attackers in 31 of those events had told at least one person about their plans beforehand. In 22 cases, two or more people knew about the planned attack in advance, the study concluded. In nearly all cases, those peers were classmates, siblings, and friends of the attackers, it said.

Newtown Shootings

Goranson used the example of Adam Lanza, who shot and killed 26 people in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in December 2012 before turning the gun on himself. Lanza was “uniquely isolated,” so it’s difficult to analyze all of the ways he might have demonstrated “leakage,” Goranson said, but there were warning signs.

Lanza had a shooting range in the basement of the home he shared with his mother. He obsessively edited Wikipedia pages about school shootings, and he played first-person shooter video games for as long as 14 hours a day. Lanza spent months not talking to his mother, communicating solely through notes passed under the door, a state investigation released after the shootings said.

And since the shootings, a tape has surfaced of a caller who Lanza’s family members believe to be him calling into a Eugene, Ore., radio show a year before the attacks. In the call, the caller related to a monkey named Travis who had ripped the face off of a human in Connecticut after being kept as a pet. From a USA Today report on the call:

The caller spoke with John Zerzan, host of Anarchy Radio on KWVA-FM, the campus radio station at the University of Oregon, in Eugene. 'His attack can be seen entirely parallel to the attacks and random acts of violence that you bring up on your show every week, committed by humans, for which the mainstream also has no explanation,' Lanza said of Travis. 'I just ... don't think it would be such a stretch to say that he very well could have been a teenage mall shooter or something like that.'"

It’s worth noting that Lanza’s father, who hadn’t seen his son for years before the shootings, doesn’t think they could have been prevented.

Ending ‘The Myth’

Allowing the myth that shooters “just snap” to persist robs the public and the mental health community of chances to learn from attacks, gathering small pieces of insight that may further improve risk-assessment methods, Goranson said.

The public clings to the idea because Americans live in a society of “white hats and black hats” with definite good guys and bad guys, because they want to believe “this behavior is an aberration that reflects nothing on us,” and because they don’t want to be seen as placing blame after horrific events, he said.

But “just snapped” is not “just words,” Goranson said. The cliché serves to change the way society deals with marginalized and at-risk people, and it minimizes the value of intervention, he said. Part of the problem is that psychologists and others who intervene when they sense danger or at-risk behavior have no way of measuring or proving that they’ve prevented potential violent behaviors, Goranson said, so it’s difficult to explain the value of risk assessment to the public.

“People don’t wake up and suddenly make a major shift in how they’ve been their entire lives and suddenly decide to kill others,” he said.

Photo: A photograph released by the Connecticut State Police shows a bullet-shattered window at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., after the Dec. 14, 2012, shootings by Adam Lanza that claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and six educators. --Connecticut State Police/AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.